Murphy’s post last week on improvising sparked quite a discussion, so I thought I’d add some further ideas. This same topic came in one of my banjo lessons on Saturday. Clay, who drives to Nashville from Memphis every now and then for a lesson, had been reading about improvising on this very blog. He broached the question of what counts as improvising and are there different levels of improvising. I assured him that of course there are different levels of improvising! He’s been playing seven years and can play a break to a three-chord song that he doesn’t know (that is, hasn’t sat down and learned a break for) fairly easily. But he was worried that at this point he should be able to make those breaks sound like the melody of the song.
“Absolutely not,” I told him. If he could improvise the melody at this point, he’d be some kind of intuitive banjo super genius! The first step is simply putting licks over the chords. And he can do that. The second step is refining those licks so that they sound more like the tune you’re playing. For instance, on a song like “On and On” that has a melody that starts high, start with hammers instead of a lick down on the fourth string because that follows the shape of the melody more closely.
In Clay’s lesson we went through a couple songs, chord by chord, finding the licks that sounded most like the melody. Almost 100% of the time they were licks that he already knew, he just hadn’t ever thought to pull them out of the song he had learned them in and use them in something else. Most people, when they’re starting to improvise, only use a small number of the licks that they know. It takes some thought and practice to put a wider variety of licks at your disposal—not by learning new ones, but by looking deeper into ALL the songs that you already play. Although going through that process is not technically improvising—strictly speaking it’s practice—it’s doing the groundwork that will help you improvise better next time.
I was in a workshop that Bela Fleck was doing one time and he was talking about improvising. He said that when you start out, you take big chunks from songs that you know and use them in other songs. (The biggest chunk being a whole break—like the break for “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” also works for the song “Will You Be Lovin’ Another Man.”) As you get better the chunks you use get smaller, a phrase, a lick, a part of a lick. Until finally each piece that you’re using is one note long. Even at the highest levels, improvising is not just making stuff up out of thin air. It’s built on the foundation of everything you know and have played before.